Books and the reason we do science

Chris at Mixing Memory has a nice post today soliciting favorite opening paragraphs. It sent me scrambling to my library for this gem from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an expedition to Tibet undertaken, o a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and, finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the ‘services to science’ platitudes or the other little mazes in which we entice our minds so that they will not know what we are doing.

Truth is, we go into the sciences each for our own reasons. One of the best writers on this subject is John Janovy Jr whose books capture the excitement of field biology and the challenges and joys of teaching it. You may know of Janovy from his On becoming a biologist. My favorite of his ten books is still Keith County Journal which is as excellent an introduction to Janovy’s writing as you are likely to find. I read it as a senior in high school, and Janovy (and Steinbeck, and Sagan, and Dillard, and Abbey, and Eisley) are a big reason I’m a scientist.

Janovy also provides an extensive and esoteric reading list as well as an unpublished manuscript that is bound tor turn a few heads, “Outwitting College Professors: a practical guide to secrets of the system.” (PDF) which deserves wide readership. So spread this meme around!

And leave some recommended authors of your own in the comments, those books that are must reading for the days when all the experiments flop and working at Sonic seems a distinct prospect.


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